Biology career?

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Thu Nov 30 10:37:53 EST 1995

On 30 Nov 1995, Dr Love wrote:

> UTM.EDU wrote:
> >I was wondering if anyone could give me some ideas as to what type of jo=
> >I could do with a B.S. degree in Bilogy. Any suggestions would be greatl=
> >appreciated.
> >
> >email address: scotbeck at
> >
> >Thank you very much for your time!!!!!
> Technician in a hospital, research lab or similar lab work IF your=20
> degree is "lab orineted".
> Field bio is possiblle otherwise.
> Most importantly, realize that you are first and foremost=20
> a "College Grad" and do not
> limit your self to titles like Biologist. There are plenty of=20
> Biologistst out there! And none
> of the new ones are finding jobs all that easily.=20
> If it isn't too late, consider picking up a dual degree (or=20
> drop the scinece stuff entirely),=20
> by looking into business, law, etc.
> Also, see the newsgroup "" if you are=20
> thinknig about the research angle.
> It will probably change your mind (as there is no real=20
> future for the researchers already in it=20
> as postdocs, etc.) and certainly convince you that the worst=20
> thing you can do is dig yourself=20
> in deeper getting more advanced degrees (Master's or PhD, that is.)
> Just my two cents (And 17 years of expoerience since receiving=20
> my Bachlor's degree)
> Dr Love PhD (in Biochemistry and MOlecular Bioilogy)
>          MBA (in progress to get a real job)

Being in science & technology in a broad sense (physics,=20
electronics, informatics, some biology, etc) for almost
30 years and producing 110 paper (mostly for recycling,
but not ashamed as 95-99 % of all papers accompany mine
there), I am largely endorse what Dr. Love is saying=20
above. You should be VERY critical ans sober about the
CAREER in science, even if you do have a passion for
science, knowledge, etc.

This is where most (or at least very many) people
make a fatal mistake. They somehow got to believe that=20
the only way to be at a communion with science is to
get there full time (as a career choice) and strive
it through. Scientific establishement vigorously
defend this myth (that science is only for "inner=20
circle"), and makes many areas of science deliberately
obscure and un-understandable for the "uninitiated".

This effect of deliberate cabbalistics is well
accounted in critical literature. It is not to say
that nothing else is left "to be discoverd" in science,
but because in late 20th century it largely turned
into a branch of economy with all corporate=20
infrastructuring imposed on it. I think, it is
highly desirable for you (or any aspiring student=20
loving science) to make him/herself clearly aware=20
of the fact that they are heading in the marketplace,
where the value of ideas and novelty is almost
nothing and the salemanship is almost everything.

Attached is one of my previous posters, for those
who want to read more.

Alex Berezin       =20

---------------------------------------------------------  =20
Published in "Physics in Canada",
January/February 1995, pp. 6-8.


by Alexander A. Berezin         =20

Department of Engineering Physics, McMaster
University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L7
A recent letter by Hogler Friedrich [1] reiterates=20
a sentiment many of us have had all along - the drying
up of a stream of fundamental discoveries in physics=20
despite an impressive growth of physics community=20
worldwide. I suspect, the same effect may take place
in many other areas of science.

Likewise, the gradual evolution of the post World War II
Nobel Prize pattern from the emphasis on actual discoveries
to rewarding most prominent life-time careers [2] may be
a subtle reflection of general cultural trend in modern=20
society; that is the mass-media propelled shift of interest
from actual issues (including major scientific issues) to
notorious celebrities. People on the street know more about
remarkable personal story of Stephen Hawking than about=20
actual cosmology.
While bodies like Nobel Prize committees are undeniably very
competent, they are not free from fads and fashions of=20
social realm. Almost instant nobelling of high temperature
superconductivity was in part a reflection of this social
sensationalism and involved elements of gambling on future
developments. Only the fact that a Hollywood-like cold fusion
roller-coaster was far too fast, has prevented Pons and
Fleischmann from packing for Stockholm. At the same time, it
is quite sad that a Nobel Prize can not be awarded
posthumously. Recently departed giants John Bell and David
Bohm with their immense contribution to the understanding
of quantum nonlocality are obvious "overlooks" of Nobel
Prize system.

Fortunately, important discoveries are still sometime
rewarded by Nobel Prize. My own University (McMaster) has
just been blessed to acquire its first laureate. Professor
Bertram Brockhouse shares 1994 Nobel Prize in physics for
the DISCOVERY of investigative potential of neutron
scattering made almost 40 years ago. His well-deserved
Nobel Prize is, therefore, long overdue.=20
Among the factors contributing to the "discovery-dilution
phenomenon" are two important effects. The first is the
uncritical overplaying of a business model to an activity
whose prime aim is a search for truth, not competition for
grants [3]. Business mentality favours the invasion of
bureaucratic and corporate structures to the academia which
tend to proliferate for their own sake, often at a direct
detriment of the very process of scientific innovation they
are supposed to "serve".=20

The second effect is a gross overestimate of the capacity
of a peer review system, especially in matters of awarding
research grants [3-7]. The only genuinely due purpose of=20
peer review is to serve as a reasonable safeguard against
crude unprofessionalism. However, it tends to claim a much
greater territory and assumes various science-control roles
which should not belong to it. Its most malignant aspect
results from its anonymity. The latter gives the reviewers
significant powers without requesting any responsibility in
return. Of course, not all peer reviewers are evil or
dishonest. And yet, despite the best individual intentions,
the secretiveness of the process inevitably results in
conformistic pressures along mainstream lines. Presently,
the only realistic way to pursue innovative ideas in science
is their careful concealment behind the mainstream facade=20
of well established ideas.=20
Many prominent scientists wrote about detrimental effects=20
of "selectivity" in research funding. The justification of
"selectivity" is based on a false assumption that "properly
conducted" peer-review can correctly (or at least better=20
than at random) forecast the impact of future work. As early
as in 1972 the Nobel Prize laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
wrote [8]:=20

  "_writing proposals was always an agony to me. I always
   tried to live up to commandment, "don't lie if you don't=20
   have to".  I had to...A discovery must be, by definition,
   at variance with existing knowledge.  During my lifetime,
   I made two. Both were rejected out of hand by the popes=20
   of the field_".=20

In the words of biophysicist Richard Gordon [3] "_we are=20
forced to lie to obtain funds to seek truth_".   =20

   While peer-review IN JOURNALS deals with RESULTS (or at
least interpretations) and generally (though not always) is
capable of reasonable assessment of contextual relevance,=20
peer-review of PROPOSALS deals, by definition, with
FUTUROLOGY. There are many reputable and well substantiated
studies demonstrating an almost universal inability of
peer-review to predict the future any better than
Nostradamus. Nevertheless, the NSF, Canadian NSERC and other
major granting agencies insist, contrary to all historical
record, that it can be done, and that it SHOULD be done on a
routine basis.
A recent article by Jeffrey Mervis "At NSF: Fewer, Longer Grants"
[9] provides several quotes of which, in my opinion, attempt to
justify damagingly wrong selectivity practice on a basis of a
bogus philosophy of "winners and loosers". Geochemist Stan Hart
is quoted as saying:

   "_...continuing support for those not at the cutting-edge     =20
    isn't doing anybody a favour... I hate to sound elitist,
    but once you've given someone a chance to succeed, we need
    to weed out those who are not top-notch and tell them to
    find another profession_".

The problem with this quote is not that it is elitist, but=20
that it is wishful thinking. There is no mysterious gauge
which can determine what is "top notch" and what is not. The
only claimant _to be_ such a gauge, the so-called "expert=20
peer review system", has historically a remarkably poor=20
record in its capacity to predict the outcome. It is often=20
said that Christopher Columbus would never have left his
harbour should his voyage been subjected to the pre-approval=20
of an expert peer review panel.=20

Similarly, Stanford chemist Richard Zare attempts to justify
"_fewer-grants-for-best-scientists_" - philosophy by saying [9]:

   "_Yes, this means fewer winners, but it means letting=20
    the winners really win. The alternative is peanut butter -   =20
    spreading the money as thinly as possible - and in the
    long run that's a recipe for mediocrity_".

Here the troble is, again, that it all COULD well be true,
PROVIDED it was possible to pre-determine the winners before
the game is played. Such possibility, however is magnificently
disproved by the whole history of science. What the funding
philosophy of NSF/NSERC fails to appreciate, is that the=20
pressure of "selectivity" coerces researchers into the avenues=20
of "safe science". The net result of the overly competitive
granting system is exactly what Zare wants to avoid:
proliferation of "excellence in mediocrity". Due to the
"publish-or-perish" paranoia, much of what is actually
produced in the science marketplace is well dressed trivia,
often with little end-use.
Instead of ongoing overblown, bureaucratic, and politicized
funding "committees" and "councils" to evaluate "proposals",
more equitable funding schemes for academic research are
long overdue. Scientists, contrary to the admirers of Ann
Landers, don't need "councilling" to tell them what they
should or should not do. New schemes should be based on
funding scales rather than on policies with sharp
cut-offs [5]. Contrary to what Zare seems to imply, there
is no "minimal amount" below which grant looses its
usefulness: hardly anyone can recall a single case when
a grant recepient refused to accept funding of the basis=20
that it was "too low".
The false faith that draconian competition for grants is=20
the best way to achieve mythical "excellence" was
repetitively refuted by many leading world scientists.
Quote Nobel Prize physicist Heinrich Rohrer [10]:=20

  "_To my knowledge significant progress has never been
    born of competition... To view a scientific project as a     =20
    field of nationalistic competition is a chauvinistic         =20
    absurdity ... In science, being "better" than others=20
    is of little practical value ... Competition is but a        =20
    detraction from the main point, namely from that which=20
    could be new ... Example of how absurd the idea of
    scientific competition ... are abundant ..._"  =20
In short, if we want more Nobel Prize-level discoveries,
we should better listen to Nobel Prize laureates.
Unfortunately, the idea of "competition" is so vastly
overplayed in North American psyche that nothing short of
a new "paradigm shift" can help to reorient the whole
society (including science) from competition to cooperation.
What we need in order to encourage more discoveries in
physics (and other sciences) is PRECISELY THE OPPOSITE what
is recommended by the title of the article [9]. It makes
much more economical, social, and scientific sense to=20
fund MORE RESEARCHERS at LOWER LEVELS than a few at a high
level. Even an Albert Einstein whose grant is suddenly
increased from $ 50 K to $ 250 K per year will not discover
five times as many theories of relativity. However, the
present funding system (more dollars to the "best") is=20
based on just this naive assumption that he will indeed
multipy his output of discoveries. Contrary to a popular
misconception, "super-research" almost never benefits from
"super-funding". On the contrary, there are numerous
examples when the OVERfunding of prolific groups actually
turns into a DISSERVICE to them. Overfunded university
"empires" as a rule show a decay, not a growth, in terms=20
of their actual creativity.=20

Contrary to the best intentions of its designers, the
present NSF/NSERC model of highly selective competition
between proposals is a major impediment, and not a=20
catalyzer of discovery-oriented research. The use of this
model disregards the feedback effect of the selectivity
policy on a research community. In order to maintain their
"fundability" people propose research which THEY BELIEVE
optimize their chances to score highest marks from peer
reviewers. However, by its very nature, truly innovative
and path-breaking research is based on significant risk
taking and often is too uncertain and "fuzzy". It almost=20
never seems truly predicable and, correspondingly, is=20
likely to get a mixed peer-review response instead of the
high score required in the presnt funding system. The fact
that some really innovative research occasionally "slips=20
through" and gets funded happens largely IN SPITE of the
present NSF/NSERC selectivity system rather than because
of it. The existence of such "happy exceptions" does not
offset the inappropriateness of the present "excellence-
enforcement" selectivity model in general. =20
To conclude, the present discriminative and segregative
funding policies are generally oppressive to innovation.
Contrary to what their proponents claim, these policies
impede rather than stimulate the real search for new=20
discoveries. What than should we do to overcome the present
climate of eradication of risk-taking and mass coercion of
researchers into "safe science" ? We need to go back to=20
the fundamental formula "FUND RESEARCHERS, NOT PROPOSALS"
and should emphasize the track record (i.e. actual
achievements) of the applicants, rather than continue a
useless game of "competition between promises". Most
problems which physics community now faces should be=20
addressed and solved at home. We should stop blaming
greedy governments for "underfunding" and start cleaning
our own house. The first thing to do is to abolish the=20
secretive system of anonymous peer review and move from
"competition" (it fails to deliver anyway) to a genuine
cooperation and a win-win game in science. We do not need
governments or "extra funding" to assist us with this. We
can do it ourselves, here and now. Failure to do so is
bound to foster further social trivialization of our
profession.        =20


[1]  Hogler Friedrich, "Mere coincidence ?",=20
     Am.J.Phys.  62, 776 (1994).
[2]  C. Sharp Cook, "Is physics approaching a state of
     stagnation ?", Am.J.Phys. 48, 175-176 (1980).
[3]  Richard Gordon, "Grant agencies versus the search
     for truth", Accountability in Research, 2, 297-301 (1993).
[4]  Michael Kenward, "Peer review and the axe murderers",
     New Scientist, 102 (1412), p. 13 (31 May, 1984).=20
[5]  Alexander A. Berezin and Geoffrey Hunter, "Myth
     of competition and NSERC policy of selectivity",
     Canadian Chemical News, 46(3), 4-5 (1994).
[6]  Beth Savan, "Science Under Siege (The Myth of Objectivity
     in Scientific Research)", CBC Enterprises, Toronto, 1988.=20
[7]  David F. Horrobin, "The Philosophical Basis of Peer Review
     and the Suppression of Innovation", J.of Amer.Medical
     Association, 263, 1438-1441 (1990).
[8]  Albert Szent-Gyo=94rgyi, "Dionysians and Apollonians",
     Science, 176, 966 (1972).
[9]  Jeffrey Mervis, "At NSF: Fewer, Longer Grants",
     Science, 262, 1636-1638 (10 December, 1993).
[10] Heinrich Rohrer, "Science - A Part of Our Future",
     Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 19, 193-199 (1994).



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